Much good can be said about the utility of Commissions Of Inquiry. In fact, Commissions of Inquiry have long been part of the machinery of governments, all over the world, connected with law and government, or on which governments required information, or events giving rise to public concern.
Such commissions are normatively desirable. Whether they make a difference is for another column. That, notwithstanding, the Commission of Inquiry (COI) officially established by President, Irfaan Ali and the PPP/C is not about discovering the truth or real electoral reforms; it is a ruse to divert public attention from a more serious issue and to facilitate manipulation of electoral processes by the ruling PPP/C.
On June 21, 2022, President Irfaan Ali officially announced the establishment of a COI into the March 2, 2020 Elections. What is strikingly interesting are the timing and the context in which the Commission was announced and subsequently established. These two factors [timing and context] have raised a number of worrying questions: Considering the timing, the public would have observed that the President announced the setting up of the COI at the peak of “Su-gate” scandal, which involved Vice President, Bharrat Jagdeo. It is very possible that the announcement of this COI, by the President, was a ruse to divert public attention away from those damning allegations against the Vice President. Indeed, it was an attempt at a classic public relations move, by the PPP/C but it was bad for astute political leadership and good governance.
The President made the announcement while addressing hundreds during the wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the Enmore Martyrs, at the Plantation Enmore, East Coast Demerara Monument. This is a significant event for the PPP/C, at which the party takes the liberty to tell all sorts of stories against the PNCR, to rally their supporters against that party. In that context, the President’s announcement could be seen as not only partisan but also an attempt to vilify APNU/AFC, in general, and the PNCR, in particular.
Both the timing and context have cast more than a shadow of doubt on the real intention of the President. But even if the President’s intentions were sincere his judgement on timing was very poor. There are two active election petitions before the Guyana’s Court of Appeal (COA), and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). In addition, there are several other elections- related matters before the Courts. Instead of allowing those matters due process, the President rushed to announce, appoint and swear Commissioners for the COI. This is poor political leadership and administration.
Even President Ali recognised the problem demonstrated by his statement, in an edition of the Stabroek News where he stated:
“There is a parallel process and this was the reason I came under criticism for not bringing the CoI into operation [sooner]. But I said earlier that it is difficult to have the CoI running concurrently with an ongoing criminal case. So now you have to find that delicate balance to satisfy all of what is ongoing. The team is now working on documents to ensure that the TORs, while all-encompassing, does not interfere with the court cases.”
His challenge is finding “…that delicate balance”. Whatever that means, the President appears to be aware that the COI could affect the ongoing cases. It would be interesting to see the Commission carry on its work using a delicate balance. But if the competent authority for the administration of election, in Guyana- the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) has argued, stridently, that it does not have powers to investigate the turbulence that occurred during the elections of March 2020 or even its internal processes, and that those inquires/investigations could only be done by a Court of Law then wither the COI? What difference would the Commission make?
There are many other imponderables about this PPP/C COI. One such questions is the approach:
It is normal for Commissions Of Inquiry to be set up by the President. Indeed, under the law, the President has certain powers to do and to act in ways that will protect the Constitution, the interests of the State and the people; establishing Commissions and other Tribunals to investigate matters and events, particularly those ones that have consequential implications for the well- being of the State are certainly in order with constitutional Presidential powers.
However, one would have thought that given the sensitivity of the issues involved, and the fact that the PPP/C was a competing party in those very elections that gave rise to certain troubling questions about the conduct, administration, and managements of those elections, and the functionality of GECOM itself, the President would have, at the very least, interrogate the practical idea of consulting with other parties, and encouraged them to co- design the Commission and its Terms of Reference (TOR). The President is under a constitutional obligation to act in an inclusive manner, the Constitution proclaims Guyana to be an “inclusive democracy”.
The President is obviously not serious [ there is evidence to show that he is not] about finding the truth and implementing real and lasting electoral reforms, if he was then certainly he would have considered extant political and other circumstances, in the matrix of announcing, selecting Commissioners and establishing such a Commission; he did otherwise.
President Ali could have used a broad- based approach to set up the COI. That approach would have done three things: (1) prevent the impact, of wide- spread perception that PPP/C party affiliates could have a free hand to covertly indulge in actions inimical to other opposition and minority parties, on the effectiveness of the work of the Commission; (2) heightened confidence and create trust in the process; and (3) allow the President to treat the establishment of the Commission as a part of a continuum that could have ultimately improve collaboration between the government and other political parties and stakeholders to design systems to better the lives of all Guyanese. The President has squandered the opportunity to show strong leadership and to be inclusive in his approach on a significant national issue.
Surely, it could not be that of all the political parties that contested the March 2, 2020 Elections, only one, – the PPP/C- gets to pick the team that would investigate the processes by which that party won the elections. Clearly, the PPP/C is in an advantageous position, here.
There is more. When one thinks that both the form and formulation of the Terms of Reference (TOR) were decided on, and drafted by this same party- PPP/C- it is clear that, that party have given itself an unfair advantage against all other parties, that contested the March 2, 2020, general and regional elections, in Guyana. I suspect that the PPP/C has done so because it can. But in doing so it has committed a serious error, fatal to public trust, which is absolutely necessary for good cooperation and acceptance of the work, and findings of the Commission.
The TOR of a Commission, usually defines a Commission’s investigatory powers, limit or strengthen its investigative reach, set the time lines and geographic scope of the Commission ’s investigation. In the instant case, all of that was done by just one of several political parties that contested elections of March 2020. No other party was consulted or given the opportunity to participate at any stage of the formulation of the TOR of the Commission. This would backfire.
It must be assumed that whether an inquiry body will have an impact rests with the quality or credibility of its factual findings, analysis and policy and other recommendations. However, if the PPP/C as a single party, with its history of discrimination and unfairness, hogged this Commission to itself then how can people who believe in good governance and democracy trust the process? They cannot. No one should forget that the ruling party only represents a portion of the populace; the parties representing the rest of the population were neither consulted nor invited to participate. But, the PPP/C appears unconcerned about this crisis of trust, it has facilitated, in the work of a Commission for which it is getting ready to vote and pay out millions of taxpayers’ dollars.